Heir Island lies midway between Baltimore and Schull in Roaringwaterbay in the far southwest of the country. The hamlet of Paris lies in its centre. No Eiffel Tower or Champs Elysses here, but this Paris, located on a narrow isthmus, has its own splendours: Tranquility, gentility and a window on to a rustic way of life. And in fact, there is an art gallery up the road.
Over the water near Baltimore is the townland of Spain, complete with a watchtower.
If your geography feels a little askew after that international flavour, then the townland of Donegall on the nearby causewayed island of Ringarogy will give a domestic flavour for displacement.
Heir island, or Inis Uí Drisceoil, had a pre-Famine population of over 400 people. Nowadays, around 30 people live there permanently but the summer population swells to close to 200 who occupy purpose-built holiday houses or converted historic dwellings. The old schoolhouse has been converted to a home, but there is a restaurant, the art gallery and a small pizza takeaway in summer which is popular with passing sailors.
The island has likely been populated for thousands of years, sparsely of course at times. It was later a stronghold of the O’Driscoll clan and later came under the influence of the Coppingers after the battle of Kinsale. By the late 17th century, Heir and its surrounds were possessed by the Beechers and Townsends.
The roadways are festooned with drooping fuchsia, honeysuckle and in summer a glorious splash of the orange montbretia flower. A lovely walk takes you from the pier on the eastern end to Paris and on to the far side of the island across a path when the road ends on a grassy carpet. The views to the outlying islands towards Cape Clear and the Fastnet Rock are nothing short of magnificent.
A junction near the pier offers a road to the left where some lovely beaches host summer tourists. There is even a beach Olympics for children.
The island is T-shaped. For any jigsaw aficionados it forms a neat fit with Sherkin Island just to the south. To the west lie the dot-dot-dot ellipsis of the Calf Islands and further west again the obelisk of the Fastnet Rock. To the north in this archipelago lie the Skeams, East and West. East of Heir, is Cunnamore Head which is adjacent to Lisheen and home of our Olympic rowing champions Gary and Paul O’Donovan.
Heir Island, is even large enough to have to own satellite islands: Illaungawna and Ilaunkeeragh. They are low-lying and host to much flotsam and jetsam though swathed in small meadows filled with wildflowers. The main island itself has dozens and dozens of species: apart from the usual suspects there are pale dog-violet, spotted rock-rose, slender trefoil, autumn lady’s tresses, elecampane.
Roaringwater Bay, with Heir Island at its centre, was described in the late 19th century as a “botanical heaven” by renowned Cork botantists Reverend Thomas Allin and RA Phillips. Contemporary botanist Tony O’Mahony in Wildflowers of Cork City and County writes that their discoveries represented “the tip of the botanical iceberg”.
This short article bows its head to the authority on Heir, Eugene Daly, whose magnificent Heir Island: Its History and People is a riveting account of life on the island. The men who cut and drew seaweed to enrich the land, to fashion lobster pots in winter, to flail the corn.
Or the women who “kept fires going, drew water from the wells, milked the cows, made butter, baked bastable cakes, reared large families”. The people of Heir knew hardship and poverty, mourning exiled children and siblings, writes Daly. They had to pick periwinkles in bare feet on cold winter days, he says.
Time passes and the island life has endured. Diminished in population but not spirit.
“In the West a salmon sun/ Eases into the sea/ Beyond known and fabled islands” — Eugene Daly.
- Getting there: From Baltimore, Schull and Cunnamore: heirislandferry.com www.heirislandferries.com;
- Books: Heir Island: Its History and People, Eugene Daly, Heron’s Way Press. Wildflowers of Cork City and County, Tony O’Mahony, Collins Press
- Art: www.ianhumphreys.ie; www.christinethery.com